It’s exactly what the fourth of July should be: a thousand people packed into a park to gorge, chat, smile, and watch fireworks. This is a scene from around the nation; Americans milling around their friendly little burgs, pounding back fried dough and four-dollar iced lemonade and buying that most distinct of American celebratory effects, the glo-stick necklace.
But there’s something at least a little unique about Saugerties’ celebration. Maybe it’s the breadth of the situation; cars are lined up and down the street leading to the high school, parked bumper to bumper and separated, in at least one glorious case of automotive gumption, by a half-inch from one another. Throngs of humanity are easing down the street at five miles an hour with babies and grandmas, boyfriends and stepdads. Oh, and on the Fourth of July in Saugerties, that most American of rights — private property — falls by the wayside for anyone living anywhere near Cantine Field; ain’t no way anyone’s making it all the way to the baseball fields without stepping on your lawn to get past some particularly slow-walkers. So much for Don’t Tread on Me.
It’s kind of a hike- my brother and I have parked far from the show, near the Kiersted House. On the way into the fields, I’m on the lookout for snippets of latter-day Americana, something you wouldn’t see in any other country. I find an example in seconds: a ’97 Dodge Neon decked out with a an enormous vinyl decal of some very early nineties CGI skulls cackling over a swath of hellfire. There’s another decal on the door. In not-so-subtle cursive, it says Jessica.
We keep moving. There are small parties of people sitting up in the beds of their trucks, pumping out some country music and glaring at the sky, waiting for the crew to pop off another practice firework — plenty of them have gone off so far. When there’s no flash of brilliance, it just makes the town sound like a warzone. Gettysburg, 1863. Eastern France, 1916. Anzio, Italy, 1944. Saugerties: this time every year.
Earlier, in town – which was seething youthful, frantic, occasionally inebriated energy —kids were lighting off strings of firecrackers. Or maybe something with a little more kick. My brother, Aidan, does a double-take for a lot of them. I don’t want to agree with him, but they do kind of sound like an automatic weapon popping off a couple of rounds in the distance.
“Don’t laugh at me,” he says as I chuckle at him “crazy crap happens on the 4th of July.”
The basketball courts are loaded with wifebeater-wearing ballers, hounding glory in the hot, lurid dusk. Aidan and I watch for a little. Even though it’s a game of 5 on 5, they’re playing halfcourt to share the blacktop with the little dudes balling on the other end. One kid, feeling monstrous, lifts off the ground and puts his hands above the rim, but refuses to dunk – he just softly lays the ball through the twine for two and, in a moment of athletic Show, Don’t Tell, glides back to earth and gives his pudgy and embarrassed opponent a serious facetious butt-slap.
Like the car, this seemed to have significance. It was the “I’m better than you and I know it” butt-slap. The cherry on top of the victory sundae.
We shuffle along to the battle of the bands. The little amphitheater is decked with a few American flags. Some kid in a wobbly Uncle Sam hat and his cohorts are shredding out some by the book, but fastidiously impressive Led Zeppelin. Sure Zep’s a British band, but this is another downright American moment. I mean it might as well have been a slice of Apple Pie served at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Flash forward to the show. The fireworks are pretty great, but after about six minutes Aidan and I decide to leave. The traffic is going to be heavy. We tromp through the crowd and cross through the basketball courts once more. Some shirtless dude with blonde dreds pops off a firecracker next to me, and a chunk hits me in the chest. But I keep moving.
Then, a guy with a nearly shaved head in cargo shorts and a tight-grey tanktop, together with his sideways-hat-wearing cohort, yells at me to stop walking and stay right the hell where I am. Microns away from my face, he lets loose.
“I know you lit off that firework.”
I go for the Easy-Like-Sunday-Morning approach. My arms folded to my chest, I tell him that I didn’t light the firecracker, that a chunk of it hit me and must have ricocheted, and the guy who did it was a stoutish, shirtless white dude with his dreds in a bun. In retrospect, my character description sounds so completely asinine that even though it’s true, I wouldn’t believe me. I hold my ground for 20 seconds or so, but he’s getting properly cheesed off and I’m two words from getting my nose broken. My younger brother comes up from behind him and stares two holes in the back of his head.
Aidan’s a genuine badass in these situations, and we’re absolutely having a same brain moment; If a fight happens here, we’re in way more trouble than this guy (who, although I am thoroughly Caucasian in lineage and appearance, keeps calling me the ‘n’ word.) We rock on out of there, frothing because our brains have released manly battle chemicals into our body. In the car one the way home, Aidan says a lot of things. How that guy ruined the night, how he wants to go back and exact a Norris-esque kung fu vengeance. But at one point he exhales and says, calmly, “…America.”
I’m willing to let it go. I’m willing to admit that Saugerties does it right. This is Americatown, USA, with everyone comes for miles to see the sky light up. Where the streets are lined with hoops and no one really gives a hoot about what they wear on a night like tonight. Where the bands battle, where the bystanders holler, where night lights up five ways from Sunday, and where beer and liberty, two of America’s great cornerstones, can sometimes get a bit too mixed up.